BWW Reviews: PEER GYNT Has Strong Cast But Competing Visuals
NOTE: Peer Gynt closed on November 2, 2014
The history of Peer Gynt is now almost as legendary and epic as the story itself. Henrik Ibsen based his epic piece of theater on the Norwegian fairytale of Per Gynt (Ibsen gives Per's first name an extra vowel), a young man who has a slew of misadventures involving trolls and other mythical creatures. Ibsen's theatrical interpretation of the fairytale is noted for its poetic style, blend of fantasy and reality, its disregard for the limitations of the stage, and its five hour length (hey, epics aren't short).
With their production of Peer Gynt, Last Act Theatre tries to capture the poetic style and spirit of Ibsen's work while shortening the text to a more manageable length. Bridget Farias Gates, who serves as adaptor and director, pulls from several translations of the text and brings the length to just under three hours. Despite the judicious cuts, Peer's journey and story still feels intact. It still flows quite nicely, and unless you're a Peer Gynt expert, which I am not, you'll probably remain unaware of the edits.
As director, Gates stages the play in HOPE Outdoor Gallery, a quirky space comprised of half-built structures which have been covered with graffiti, artwork, and murals. The marriage between the material and space is one that makes sense and is entirely unique. Gates also deserves praise for effectively re-staging her entire show close to opening. The week prior to opening, a wall was built in the middle of the playing space, and almost all of the blocking had to be re-thought. Though the change to the space calls for some scenes to be a bit cramped, every scene is staged as well as it could be in the oddly shaped space.
Still, there are some missed opportunities with the overall look and feel of the show. While the spray paint-covered HOPE Outdoor Gallery has a contemporary feel, costume designers Bridget Farias Gates and Mindy Griffin don't bring that feel into their costumes. Peer and his mother Ase are dressed as European peasants circa 1800, and the ensemble is dressed in blacks with the occasional costume piece to suggest who they are. I understand that the recently established Last Act Theater Company may not have the budget to create elaborate costumes appropriate for trolls, belly dancers, and the other characters Peer meets on his journey, but a few white t-shirts and some spray paint could bring the look of the space into the look of the characters while keeping costs low. As things are, the space and the costumes do not belong in the same world and are at odds with each other.
It takes more than strong direction or a clear visual style to make Peer Gynt work. Casting is crucial, and Gates has assembled a wonderful cast. As Peer, Andrew Bosworth is sensational. Peer is somewhat of an antihero. He's an egotistical braggart and a selfish cad, and yet we still have to like him as we follow him on his epic journey. Bosworth doesn't shy away from showing us Peer's unsympathetic qualities, and yet he does so with a charm that makes it impossible not to like the character. Bosworth is also in virtually every scene and essentially carries the show.
The actors and actresses surrounding Bosworth are all worthy of praise as well. Fritz Ketchum brings copious amounts of humor to the role of Peer's constantly worried mother, and Taylor Flanagan brings a sincerity and innocence to the role of Solevig, Peer's love interest. The ten person ensemble all turn in some fine work as well, particularly when they get to step into cameo roles.
Though the production could benefit from a more consistent visual style, Last Act Theater gives Peer Gynt a valiant effort. Ibsen's epic is not an easy one to work with, and the production manages to entertain through the strength of its performers and the work of its adaptor and director.
Running time: Approximately 3 hours, including intermission
PEER GYNT, produced by Last Act Theater Company, plays HOPE Outdoor Gallery at 1012 Baylor St, Austin 78703, now thru November 2. Performances are Thursday - Sunday at 7pm. Tickets are $15. For tickets and information, please visit www.lastacttheater.com